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Five years ago, I was vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard, an island off the coast of Cape Cod in Massachusetts, when I realized I was out of sunscreen.
My beach cohorts—three other women—were SPF-averse and determined to return home with golden suntans, and so I excused myself and made way to the closest drugstore.
I threw a bottle of Coppertone into my cart, along with a bottle of Evian and a few fashion magazines. The total came to just under $20. I swiped my debit card. “Can you swipe that again?” asked the cashier. After the second swipe, she asked if I had another card to use.
“Why?” I asked. “Is something wrong?”
“It says your card was declined,” she said. “But maybe there’s just something wrong with the card itself?”
“Oh, probably,” I replied, as I hurriedly pulled out my platinum American Express card to cover the damages. The charge was approved, and instead of returning to the beach, I went to the nearest ATM, where I learned that the available balance in my checking account was two cents, and my current balance, including the overdraft fee and dinner out the night before, was negative $40.
I’d been on the island for three days. I still had four to go. And I had absolutely no cash available until my next direct deposit, scheduled for the end of the following week.
I plastered a smile on my face as I made my way back to the clan, determined to make the rest of my vacation as enjoyable as possible while my dirty secret burned from deep inside. And I had only myself to blame. When I’d received the invitation to join in on the house in January, I’d jumped at the chance, ignoring the fact that I lived paycheck-to-paycheck and could barely pay my rent on time, never mind afford another place to stay.
But, I felt like I “deserved” a vacation: The thought of hanging back in the city, alone, while my friends frolicked on the beach had triggered my FOMO, or Fear of Missing Out, thus overpowering the logic that I should simply have said, “No, thanks.”
How the Fear of Missing Out Can Hurt You
According to Martha Beck, life coach, author, sociologist and columnist at O, the Oprah Magazine, FOMO is a 21st-century phenomenon triggered (and coined) by social media enthusiasts that keeps its victims gripped in a constant state of fear that not only is the grass greener on the other side of that status feed, but that a big ol’ party awaits us there, and if we’re not on its VIP list—well, who are we?
Some say FOMO is at near-epidemic proportions: In a survey, Mashable found that up to 56% of social media users suffer from the syndrome, spurred by constant check-ins, likes, tweets and other visions clogging our personal feeds.
FOMO can also exact an emotional toll, triggering anxiety, depression and acute comparisonitis. That last factor can wreak havoc on our finances when we attempt to keep up with a million imaginary lifestyles while ignoring our own real bottom line.
Income disparity, in particular, is one factor that can activate your FOMO: When you live in a major city like Boston, it’s not uncommon to have friends whose incomes vary greatly. Some of my friends cobble together a series of paychecks from various odd jobs to support creative pursuits, while others earn well into six figures in the banking sector. At the end of the day, our shared interests, not our tax brackets, are our glue.
Still, that glue is often fueled by a pricey Saturday night out, or, in the case of my island excursion, a week of bonding over margaritas. It’s when the invitations roll in that FOMO, or Fear of Missing Out, can kick in.
Where FOMO Comes From
“I think FOMO is symptomatic among our Millennial generation,” says Christopher Ranjitkar, a corporate communications manager in the Greater Boston area. “We’re connected all the time—particularly through social media—and in turn, it’s created a paradigm of fear, where if we’re not the first to respond to a Facebook post or a group text message, we feel anxious.”
Thanks to the likes of Facebook, Foursquare and Instagram, FOMO creates a giant measuring stick, where we’re constantly comparing what we’re up to to the rest of our 762,000 “friends.” You can find yourself wishing you were simultaneously checking into that chi-chi rooftop bar, getting your first novel published (squee!!!), reclining Brigitte-Bardot-like on a sepia-toned beach—and D.I.Y.ing chevron stripes on your dresser, a la some viral idea spreading like wildfire on Pinterest.
And suddenly it’s definitely not O.K. to be cooling your heels on your couch.
The problem is, FOMO is a type of modern anxiety in itself. A sort of frenzied multi-tasking, involving a lot of sound and fury and status updates, which, ironically, can add up to us living as less than the best version of ourselves. “We’ve somehow created this illusion that we can do it all, without stretching ourselves to the limit,” Ranjitkar says. “The reality is, when we’re struck by FOMO, we lack a particular focus.”
If FOMO had a motto, it might be: Somewhere, someone cooler than you is doing something you ought to be, too.
How I Finally Got Mine in Check
Despite making a decent income as a marketing manager for a management consulting firm and, for the most part, keeping my expenses low (I had student loans and a car payment to make each month, but thankfully, had never fallen into the plague of credit card debt), I saw my paychecks whittled away by small extravagances that quickly added up—champagne-fueled nights on the town, new outfits from designer boutiques, the trip to the Vineyard—that I simply couldn’t resist. Sure, I paid cash for these things—but where was my emergency fund? (Oh, that’s right: I didn’t have one!)
Ironically, it was when the recession hit in 2009 and I was laid off that I was forced to scale back my social life. I established priorities, like getting adequate sleep (which I’d previously compensated for by fueling with $4 lattes), consignment shopping and, yes, establishing an emergency fund, even with an income that was a fraction of what I’d previously made.
I also developed a newfound appreciation for “me” time, opting for grassy spots in a public park (free!) when I needed to get away, and, with the help of my therapist, gaining the discipline I needed to stop comparing my life to my friends’. It wasn’t easy at first, especially with Facebook beckoning to see who might be having a better time than me, but over time, I learned to find contentment in myself, and in the small moments I’d have previously missed while looking for happiness elsewhere.
Today, at 31, my world looks a lot different than it did back during that Vineyard summer. For starters, I’ve accepted that there are times when I won’t be able to join in on plans that some of my more financially flush friends make, and instead focus on activities that will keep me fueled mentally and spiritually, like taking advantage of free days at Boston’s museums and volunteering with a women’s shelter.
I still have that Amex—now, in the form of a basic rewards card to help keep a healthy credit score—and before I commit to anything, be it a pair of shoes or a lunch date, I evaluate how it’ll benefit me not only in the moment, but beyond (Are the shoes well made? How long will I wear them for, and where? Could the lunch date be a coffee date instead?).
I have no plans to ditch social media, but instead of feeling less-than while I peruse wedding albums, I feel grateful for everything I do have—most importantly, the free will that allows me to spend the ultimate luxury, free time, how and where I choose to.